Journal Sentinel, September 16, 1998

Details in dog cage case show parents' struggles--Couple could not cope with daughter's mental disorder, experts say
By Peter Maller

The previously untold story of why a Brillion mother and father locked their 7-year-old daughter in a dog cage sheds some light on a judge's decision last week not to sentence the couple to prison, mental health professionals say.

Court records that were kept secret until now to protect confidential information involving the girl and her four brothers describe Michael and Angeline Rogers' failure to cope after learning the girl had a mental disorder.

The Rogerses, who were sentenced to one year in jail Friday instead of being sent to prison, abused the girl after episodes in which she put feces into milk in the family's refrigerator and wrapped a sheet around her infant brother's neck, testimony and court records say.

While society can't excuse the actions of the parents, who had faced up to 40 years in prison, the issues surrounding the case are more complex than it first seemed, according to experts who have studied the case.

When the girl was 3, a psychologist diagnosed her as having a mental condition known as oppositional defiance disorder. Its symptoms include deliberately annoying people, defying adults' requests and being angry, resentful and spiteful.

Two psychologists and a psychiatrist, who examined the girl before the parents were arrested, later agreed with that diagnosis.

The parents told authorities that they wanted professional help because their daughter smeared feces on walls, urinated throughout the home and once threatened her mother with a knife.

But the parents could not get sufficient assistance, according to testimony from Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist appointed by the court to study the parents.

They tried to place her in a residential treatment center, but the placement never happened, he said.

After the parents were arrested, Treffert as well as a psychologist hired by the father's attorney and an investigator from state Department of Corrections concluded that the couple was horribly wrong to lock the girl in a cage. But they also agreed that her parents were not sadistic criminals.

"What the parents did was wrong," said Mark Rohrer, the father's attorney. "And nobody is attacking the little girl. But maybe if we know what was going on, it helps shed some light on why this happened."

Treffert did not interview the children, but the psychologist hired by Rohrer, Conrad Hutterli, did.

Donald Derozier, a psychologist appointed by the district attorney's office, disagreed with the view of the other professionals.

He described the girl's treatment by her mother and father as "torture" and said the child exhibited many of the same symptoms as a prisoner of war.

Calumet County District Attorney Kenneth Kratz said he recognized that the family's daily existence was profoundly affected by the girl's behavior. He also acknowledged that her actions likely contributed to what her parents did.

"But to say that they did not intentionally abuse or did not criminally abuse or did not torturously abuse the girl is just too much of a leap to make," he said. Several court documents support the parents' contention that they tried to get the child help on numerous occasions but hit dead ends, Treffert said.

The mother reported to him that the girl was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, preventing her from breathing for four minutes. Lack of oxygen at birth can cause cognitive disorders.

In the girl's infancy, she developed a strong offensive odor that her parents said kept them from holding her, Treffert reported.

Doctors were initially baffled, but they eventually discovered that the girl had stuffed a piece of crib mattress far into her nose. When the decaying material was removed, the odor went away.

Anne Arnesen, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said the case illustrates that some parents just "don't know how to parent because they were never parented well themselves."

The criminal complaint, which says Michael Rogers had beaten four of his five children with sticks and other objects, shows that he had terrible parenting skills, she said.

The girl's odor from stuffing part of a mattress into her nose might have interfered with usual bonding that occurs between parents and their babies, she added. Abused children are often children who were not bonded, Arnesen said.

Parents who need help sometimes get rejected because they are not "powerful enough" to demand it, she said.

However, Chris Morano, assistant director of the Milwaukee County Crisis Team for Children and Families, said there is no excuse for putting the child in a cage.

"I can tell you, in this state there are avenues to treatment," he said. "The girl could have been placed in a psychiatric facility."

While there is a need to help parents become better parents, "we don't want to give the message that this (way of treating children) is acceptable," Morano said.

The girl's situation came to light when her then-11-year-old brother trudged through 30-degree weather without shoes or a coat in November to the Brillion police station to alert authorities about the plight of his sister.

The first police officer on the scene reported finding the child in the family's cold and unheated basement. He said that he gagged from the stench of "human waste" in the area surrounding the cage.

Michael and Angeline Rogers each were charged with 10 felonies in connection with abusing the daughter and beating three of her brothers.

The parents entered into an agreement with Kratz to plead guilty to the four most serious charges in exchange for having the other charges dropped.

In a decision that has touched off widespread criticism, Fond du Lac County Circuit Judge Steven Weinke sentenced the couple to one year in the Calumet County Jail.

He also sentenced them to 10 years in prison but stayed that part of the sentence and put each of them on probation for 10 years.

Kratz asked Weinke to sentence each parent to 20 years in prison followed by 10 years of probation.

Weinke, who is not talking to the media about the case, said at the time of the sentencing that sending the parents to prison would "only revictimize the children."

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